Last year we got a CSA farm box for the first time. A CSA membership requires a mixture of optimism, delusion, and a certain amount of unemployment to manage. Since we’re professional musicians, we were ideal candidates. During the summer in particular, there’s a fair amount of feast or famine, professionally speaking. In May of last year, we were in a feast period, and decided to celebrate by spending a significant portion of our grocery budget on a weekly box from Nichols Farm in Marengo, IL which delivered boxes to a wine shop two minutes away from our Chicago apartment. That way, when the famine came, at least we’d have vegetables to eat, right?
One box a week for two adults seemed ambitious but doable, but from the start, I was nervous about what we’d gotten ourselves into. Andrew wasn’t as unemployed as I was hoping he’d be. At the beginning of June, he was busy with a show six days a week at one of the downtown Chicago theaters, which meant that the only night of the week that he was available to help process the box was Monday nights, which was very helpfully the night before the box arrived. When the show ended, he came down with a stubbornly virulent cold, and for three weeks was disinclined to eat kohlrabi and instead subsisted on chicken soup and takeout Thai food. Then he promptly left for summer gigs for five weeks. All of which is to say that for the first two and half months of the CSA box, I was in a perpetual state of vegetable panic, desperate to eat through the box before all the contents rotted.
Also, Andrew is the cook in the relationship. The day after he left town I gave myself food poisoning (undercooked steak, but still).
By the end of last year, as we were drowning in apples and potatoes and black radishes and no longer had access to the contents of our refrigerator, I thought, We probably shouldn’t do this again. But as the Chicago winter dragged on, I found myself yearning for the box. Not just the taste of the vegetables, but the ritual of picking it up and unpacking it and pouring over the contents, the creativity and challenge of finding ways to use it up, the structure it brought to our eating, cooking, and entertaining, and the awareness of the trajectory of the harvest and the turn of the seasons (some people eat different foods at specific times of year, it turns out!) Andrew often observed me on frigid February mornings stating such sage wisdom as, “If we get a CSA box this year, let’s try putting the vegetables in plastic bags as soon as we get them home.”
So come May of this year we renewed our Nichols Farm share and leapt back into the CSA box abyss.
With many months to reflect on our previous year’s experiences, I felt convinced that we could dispatch the weekly boxes with flair. Here are some guiding principles that we have developed based on last year’s misadventures.
1. If you fail to plan, your plan rots in the crisper drawer.
You are not going to achieve success without a pretty comprehensive meal plan including a designated use for every vegetable. Celeriac does not simply find its way into your stomach.
2. Vegetables go bad at different rates.
This one is not a shocker, I realize. But it took me a few months to figure out that starting with the apples and beets and leaving the spinach until the end of the week was not necessarily the best strategy.
3. Pickle early, but not necessarily often.
I’m not sure if my ancestors who lived in the hills of Moravia were into pickling, but if so they failed to transmit the important information to future generations that pickling is easy and delicious! However, if you are going to do it you should do it when the vegetables first arrive, and not two weeks later when the radishes have started to collapse into a pile of goo. Rotting vegetables do not make good pickles. It’s also important to keep in mind that pickling is a two-step process: pickling, and then actually eating the pickles. Once you pickle a gallon of radishes, you then have to eat a gallon of pickles or else the radishes will still be in your fridge years later.
4. Do not, under any circumstances, use a recipe by Yotam Ottolenghi.
Ottolenghi’s cookbooks—like Plenty or Plenty More—seem perfect for a box full of vegetables, but trust me, this is a bad idea. The average Ottolenghi recipe takes about 3.5 hours to complete, by which time you have used every pot in the kitchen (and our landlord has yet to spring for a dishwasher). Ottolenghi’s recipes also call for between 56 and 115 unique ingredients, only one of which is actually in the CSA box, and the others of which require three to four trips to various specialty grocery stores. So by the time you finish galavanting all over town collecting ingredients and cooking the, admittedly, exquisitely delicious Ottolenghi recipe, you are in such a state of exhaustion that the rest of the vegetables have rotted by the time you are able to rise up and re-enter the kitchen three days later.
5. Facebook is an excellent assistant in the identification of curious vegetables.
Even though Nichols Farm emails every Monday to tell us what is in our Tuesday box, we were surprised to discover how often we couldn’t identify a stray vegetable in our box. This, it turns out, is why the internet was invented.
6. If worse comes to worst, a CSA box is an excellent asset in a barter economy.
When Andrew was of town, I sometimes met up with friends for drinks and brought them a sack of vegetables as a means of apology for the fact that I was probably going to spend an hour talking about the CSA, what I had done with it that week, my anxieties about it, my hopes for its future, etc. It turns out people who don’t have CSA boxes are excited rather than horrified to be given a sack of vegetables, and will in some cases buy you a beer with great enthusiasm. This is great! You have just traded vegetables for beer.
So here we are. With these guiding principles firmly in mind, we venture once more into the fray. Here we will document our 2016 efforts, our successes and failures, our glittering strawberries and our rotting brussels sprouts. Let our adventures serve as a warning to others.